Drug-policy reform in the United States, the grand political project of dismantling a century-old web of punitive state and federal drug laws, has often followed a certain formula.
First, demonstrate the heretofore-demonized drug in question can be beneficial. Use compelling stories of healing to organize grassroots movements, who influence sympathetic lawmakers in liberal cities. Start racking up political victories, even if they are mostly symbolic. Attract material support, ideally from a benevolent philanthropist or two.
Use your momentum to stack facts — reason, data, science — in front of lawmakers. If they prove intransigent, go the direct democracy route and appeal to voters in liberal states, where the drug laws enforced by police are codified – and can be much more easily challenged and defeated than in deadlocked Congress. Then, if all goes well, after the political victories are won, enjoy the fruits of legalization while trying not to worry too much about the venture capitalists waiting in the wings to flip what was once contraband into just another commodity.
The first psychedelic to become legal may be psilocybin, which is well on its way along this path.
After the success of several decriminalization measures in mostly West Coast cities — Ann Arbor, Michigan joined Denver, Santa Cruz, and Oakland earlier this year—the first laboratory to test the hypothesis that state-level legalization of psilocybin can follow local decrim is Oregon. The experiment is ongoing, with the results due in less than one month.
Buoyed by several million dollars from the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, veterans of cannabis legalization are running a virtually unopposed campaign to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy in Oregon. If they record a win with Oregon’s Psilocybin Therapy Service Initiative, called Measure 109 on voters’ ballots, activists believe, based on the precedent set by cannabis initiatives, that other states will soon follow. And other states may embrace Measure 109 as the winning model for legalizing psilocybin.
“If we can do it right here, there will be no stopping it from being replicated in other states,” says Nathan Howard, who served as an advisor to past psilocybin legalization efforts in the state and is informally advising the Measure 109 campaign. “People are spinning fairy tales to think this is not going to be the near future.”
Measure 109 would permit state-licensed therapists to provide psilocybin to patients aged 21 and over, in a controlled setting, for the purposes of treatment. The manufacture, delivery and administration of psilocybin would take place only at licensed facilities, under strict guidelines.
Those guidelines, including licensing of therapists and therapy centers, would be overseen by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). Therapist training may be offered by third-parties, who would have to submit coursework and syllabi to the state Department of Education, as well as the Health Authority.
Any actual change in the law, or therapy access, would not happen for two years. In that time, called a “development period,” the OHA and the state Legislature would work out numerous details – including possession and cultivation limits, who qualifies for licenses to provide therapy or run a treatment center, and who qualifies for treatment.
Should Measure 109 pass, recreational possession and use of psilocybin in the state of Oregon would remain illegal and a potential felony – unless an unrelated decriminalization measure also passes. Measure 110 would decriminalize possession. Individuals who possess up to 12 grams for “personal use” would receive no more than a $100 fine. Possession of more than 12 grams, and cultivation of the drug, would remain potential crimes.
Aside from carving out an exception for psilocybin use within the therapy model, Measure 109 does not affect other drug laws. And neither measure would change the federal Controlled Substances Act, which declares psilocybin a “Schedule I” drug, with no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
The deliberate pace is a deliberate choice, measure organizers and supporters say. Going slow and instituting strict controls on access and setting is seen as a way to build more positive momentum while simultaneously soothing fears from skeptics that drug access is moving too far, too fast.
“Our highest hope is that people understand what they’re voting on,” said Portland-based psychotherapist Tom Eckert during a recent Measure 109 press conference. Eckert is co-sponsor of the initiative with his wife and fellow therapist Sheri Eckert.
Legalizing psilocybin-based therapy rather than rushing towards recreational legalization follows the incremental formula that has worked for state-level cannabis legalization in the last decade, an imperfect analogue but the nearest comparison–for both politicians and the public.
This cautious approach is a turn off for some psychedelic advocates, including the activists with the group Decriminalize Nature Portland, which announced it will pursue a decriminalization measure through the city council.
In an internecine schism, all Oregon chapters of Decriminalize Nature, which has organized successful decriminalization measures in Oakland, Denver, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor, oppose Measure 109, calling it a colonialist power grab that disrespects traditional indigenous use of psilocybin mushrooms. “These bills do nothing for the majority of society, those who prefer to take mushrooms on their own terms, outside of any legal framework, which up to this point includes everyone with the exception of those involved in scientific research,” the organization said in a Facebook post.
Whether that will register with voters remains to be seen. Prominent state and national drug-policy reform advocates contacted for this article are confident that squabbles between activist groups won’t sway the electorate.
At the same time, even token opposition might tip the scales in a tight race, and Measure 109 appears to be that.
Despite no organized or funded opposition campaign, polling from 2019 suggests a dead heat. Sam Chapman, a Measure 109 campaign spokesman, declined to release or discuss more recent numbers.
Though the measure has prominent sponsors, including six state senators and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, skeptical voters in the suburbs may be swayed by counterarguments. The most prominent so far is the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Society, which registered its official opposition late last month and argued in favor of a prescription-only pharmaceutical model, regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration. But even with psilocybin’s FDA-granted “breakthrough treatment” status placing psilocybin on a faster track through the onerous clinical trial process, it will still be years before any psilocybin-based pharmaceutical drugs are available.
Meanwhile, looming over everything is the Controlled Substances Act and federal law that still declares psilocybin a dangerous drug with no medical value.
Graham Boyd, the founding political director of New Approach PAC, said in a recent interview that all of these concerns are acknowledged by the measure’s backers, whose intention is to start chipping away at psychedelic prohibition.
“Ending criminalization is urgent,” he says.
Along with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Drug Policy Action PAC, New Approach is one of the country’s most prominent drug-policy reform organizations, active in nearly every state campaign to legalize cannabis. DPA is staying out of Measure 109 but is bankrolling Measure 110 together, along with significant financial support from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public-policy organization, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.
Boyd is also political director for Dr. Bronner’s, which to date has pledged more than $2 million to Measure 109, of which $1.5 million appear in the most recent campaign filings. (As part of the schism, company CEO David Bronner recently withdrew his support for the national leadership of Decriminalize Nature but continues to support local chapters.)
Boyd sees Measure 109 as both a complement to concurrent efforts to legalize psilocybin-based pharmaceutical drugs through the FDA process, as well as a possible tool to bring about realistic, practical and legal access to fungi-based medicines in the meantime.
Boyd outlined three representative scenarios for responsible and socially acceptable psilocybin use. One is pharmaceutical, prescription access for “people who have the most significant medical conditions,” he said. The second is an “intentional use that often involves a higher dosage of psilocybin, for someone looking to have a significant experience, that could be medical, could be psychological, could be personal growth,” he said. And though Boyd dislikes the word and believes it is “frivolous,” the third is “recreational.”
Measure 109 legalizes only the second of the three, while imposing strict controls on when, how, and by whom psilocybin can be administered.
“But nobody should go to jail or face arrest for those [other] actions, either,” he said. (That’s where Measure 110 comes in.) “Decriminalization overall sets a context where criminal justice involvement is not just an option.”
And as for the potential enforcement of federal drug laws, Boyd and fellow organizers — relying on cannabis legislation as precedent — believe that the Drug Enforcement Administration won’t try to block a strictly regulated, state-overseen, therapy model.
They acknowledge the potential for federal intervention in the last item of the FAQ on their website, noting that “Measure 109 depends on cooperation from the federal government to succeed because even after Measure 109 passes, psilocybin will still be illegal federally.”
Referencing Oregon’s experience with cannabis legalization, the FAQ states: “We anticipate the federal government will be similarly flexible regarding Oregon’s psilocybin therapy program – a program which would actually serve federal anti-drug abuse objectives by prohibiting sales of psilocybin to the public while offering psilocybin therapy only at state licensed facilities.”
“Part of the reason for the two-year implementation period is to engage with federal officials and create a system they can tolerate, much as they have with cannabis,” Boyd said. “It doesn’t make any sense for you to come and arrest licensed therapists who are doing something quite responsible.”
Chad Kuske is a former Navy SEAL from Portland who grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder for years before successfully treating it with psilocybin.
“Measure 109 is really well thought out, and Oregon is a great place to start,” Kuske said in an interview with Lucid News from Mexico, where he is involved with a treatment center, the likes of which would be allowed in Oregon if the measure passes.
“ I think we have the opportunity to really lead, to demonstrate to people how monumentally effective these medicines can be when they are used properly, in the right setting, with the right people,” he added. “It can be an amazing opportunity for Oregon.”
Some drug-policy reform experts suggest the biggest obstacle in legalizing psychedelics – cultural resistance – has already been overcome. And this will remain true even if Measure 109 were to fail.
“Psilocybin is not a lynchpin in the culture wars in the way that marijuana has been,” observed Sanho Tree, a “reformed historian” who serves as director of drug policy at the Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank dedicated to social movements.
In the analysis of drug-policy reform experts like Tree, American culture does not demonize psilocybin the way it has other drugs. Nor are there powerful institutions with baked-in incentives to keep psilocybin illegal. There is no carceral state that relies on psilocybin prohibition to imprison large numbers of people, no political project that requires psilocybin-powered disenfranchisement. Nor are there for-profit pharmaceutical or intoxicant industries worried about competition from mushrooms.
“In many ways, cannabis was the keystone in the drug war, not because it was dangerous, but because of the sheer scale of its use,” Tree says. “You don’t have that with psilocybin.”
“We have a very good shot at passing what is truly a landmark piece of legislation,” says Howard, the Portland-based advocate. “But regardless of whether we get 109 or 110 passed, there is no version of the future that I can imagine where people do not have legal, accessible access to any number of plant based or non-plant based psychedelics.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly listed Portland as having decriminalized psilocybin, which it has not.